Jurisprudence

Will Donald Trump’s Fourth of July Parade Break the Law?

The Hatch Act prevents the president from spending tax dollars on a political rally. Here’s what would turn his “parade” into an illegal act.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to Air Force personnel on Sept. 15, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to Air Force personnel on Sept. 15, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is throwing himself a parade this week, complete with a flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels and Air Force One, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines standing by his side, and tanks that the District of Columbia emphatically does not want, although recent reporting suggests they will be parked and stationary, in an attempt to not destroy the roadways, as was originally planned. While historically, any Fourth of July celebration in Washington has been nonpartisan, this year the president will deliver a “Salute to America” address at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps he will spend it saluting America in a unifying and sober fashion, with no reference to his party, his enemies, or his reelection bid, but it seems much more likely that he will turn it into a Trump rally.

Putting aside for a moment the property damage and waste, the cost to a cash-strapped National Parks Service, and the horrifying authoritarian spectacle of a military tribute to one man’s ego, there is also the astronomical waste of taxpayers’ dollars to consider. USA Today spoke to a White House aide who estimated the cost to transport the tanks alone at $870,000; this helps explain how the cost of the scuttled military parade Trump wanted for 2018 added up to about $92 million. And while nobody will say precisely what amount taxpayers will be paying for this event, the government is currently detaining children at the southern border without access to toothbrushes, soap, socks, or their families.

Then, of course, there are the separate legal problems. CREW, the watchdog group that has been bird-dogging the administration on ethics violations, emoluments violations, and Hatch Act violations tweeted that it will be watching the “Salute to America” to determine whether the president will violate the Hatch Act when delivering his remarks.

As a refresher, the Hatch Act is a 1939 law that bars virtually all federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor whose repeated violations of the Hatch Act were so egregious that last month the Office of Special Counsel (a permanent federal agency, not Mueller’s probe) recommended that she be removed from her position, said Tuesday that the president’s remarks would be nonpartisan and instead limited to “how wonderful this country is”… “Our troops and military… Our great democracy. And great call to patriotism.” Of course last month, when asked about her own violations of the Hatch Act, Conway replied, and I quote: “Blah, blah, blah. … Let me know when the trial starts.” So she is probably not a reliable authority on the subject. Trump declined to discipline Conway for her Hatch Act violations because “I think you’re entitled to free speech in this country.”

Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics who is now a senior adviser to CREW, produced a primer on how we might know whether the Administration violates the Hatch Act on July 4. While the president himself is not bound by the act, the July 4 event turns into a taxpayer-funded Trump campaign rally if any of the following happens:

• Trump uses one of his campaign slogans: “Make America Great Again” or “Keep America Great.”
• Trump mentions the election, his reelection, or a desire to stay in office.
• Trump mentions election polling, his approval rating, or his fundraising efforts.
• Trump mentions a candidate vying for a rival party’s nomination for president.
• Trump mentions his political party or a rival political party.
• Volunteers hand out campaign signs, banners, or flyers.
• Other speakers onstage mention Trump’s campaign, reelection, or a desire for Trump to remain in office.
• Other speakers on the stage mention one of Trump’s political rivals, Trump’s political party, or a rival political party.
• Trump campaign officials are present at the event.
• any other indicia of political activity

Let’s reconsider the types of things Donald Trump typically says to a fawning crowd in MAGA hats. What is he planning on doing? Showtunes? Knock-knock jokes? During a non-political speech at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Sunday, the president first noted, “This is not a political speech,” before telling listeners that Democrats did not want to give troops new equipment because “they want open borders and the hell with the military. That’s not good.”

Also of note is the fact that there will be a VIP section in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with tickets distributed by the White House and the Republican National Committee. As HuffPost reported this past week, the RNC is offering major donors tickets, as are political appointees at the White House, but the Democratic National Committee was not given any tickets to give away. HuffPost further reports that on Tuesday, the Trump campaign sent an email to its list inviting supporters to the event that included the following phrases: “We believe this is an important way to reach our grassroots supporters with the most up-to-date information regarding the efforts of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and we’re glad you’re on our team. It’s because of grassroots supporters like you that we will Make America Great Again, and we appreciate your support.
Thank you for all that you do!”

Also consider that rooms at the Trump International Hotel, which is charging twice what local properties charge for the event, are sold out. The president and his daughter, a senior White House adviser, still profit from this state of affairs despite campaign promises not to profit from hotel income.

I asked Shaub what to make of the new revelations about the RNC and the White House offering tickets to VIPs. He said this: “The fact that the RNC is handing out tickets to major campaign donors heightens the concern that this appears to be a political rally. It’s a strong piece of evidence.”

He further clarified what is problematic about the pending celebration: “The RNC has tried to shrug it off by comparing the massive Fourth of July event on the National Mall to a holiday party or garden tour at the White House. But the president lives at the White House. The National Mall is a public space controlled by the Interior Department, which has a separate federal appropriation.”

Perhaps the president will surprise us all with a rousing and patriotic tribute to all Americans and the values that unite everyone on the Fourth. Or perhaps he will simply echo the now-infamous lines of his favorite adviser: “Blah, blah, blah. … Let me know when the trial starts.”